Wade Dump Fire: A Tale of Caution

Earlier this week I reached out to Phil Heron, editor of the Delaware County Daily Times, and asked if they were going to recognize the 40th anniversary of the so called Wade Dump fire. He said he had it on his calendar but with their ever dwindling number of reporters being reduced by yet another one recently, he couldn’t guarantee anything. Waking up this morning seeing the front page splashed with ’40 Years Later’ was a surprise.

The 40 year anniversary reminds me that it’s the 10 year anniversary of my first meeting with Melvin Wade at attorney Clinton Johnson’s office while delivering the Chester Spotlight paper. Melvin asked if it was my paper, I said yes. He asked why he hadn’t been in my paper, I asked him, “Who are you?” He told me he was Melvin Wade then went on a dizzying oral biography of his greatness according to him.

It didn’t take much for me to put one-and-one together. When he said he was a black factory owner on the riverfront, it clicked that he owned the factory that caught fire back in the day that injured a lot of people and changed environmental laws forever. That was the totality of my knowledge on the legend of Melvin Wade.

I figured I wasn’t the only one who knew little about the legend of Melvin Wade and thought locals might be interested in knowing what he’s been up to since the fire. I didn’t see Melvin for another six months. In the meantime, I learned that it was the 30th anniversary year because students at Swarthmore College were recognizing it in some kind of way.

Ironically, the second time I met Melvin was also at attorney Clinton Johnson’s office while I was dropping off the paper. In those six months, Melvin had forgotten about our earlier introduction, but I thought he should know about the Swarthmore College project just in case he wanted to make himself available. He almost jumped out his shoes when I told him.

He asked me to look into it and then called me everyday – twice a day – for an update. I learned the semester was over and whatever project they were working on had ended, but since he’s so anxious to talk, I’d take the opportunity to finally sit with him to gather information for the update article I promised.

After our first interview, I knew I was on to something. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. He told me things I didn’t see in print or hear from others. I asked for more interviews and before it was all over, I had spent well over 60 hours picking his brains and hearing his stories.

I did write that 30 year update piece in the Chester Spotlight. Thanks to the immediate receipt of phone calls and emails, I learned the degree of angst across the country for the role Melvin played in the fire on his site. But, with so much content from Melvin to work with, much of which was counter to all that was in pubic record, I figured Melvin Wade’s life needed to be presented in the form of a book.


‘Toxic Man – The Melvin Wade Story” came out around 2012. It’s the story from his own words of his life growing up in Chester; his assent as a successful business owner of residential, commercial and industrial properties; the details that led to him buying the factory and turning it into a multi-million dollar enterprise; the fall of the business; the drums, EPA, fire, trial, jail, and cleanup; and how he’s been living since the 1980s.

To a lot of people’s disappointment, the book doesn’t just talk about the fire. With my many conversations with Melvin, he didn’t talk much about the fire. In fact, whenever I would mention aspects of the role he played in receiving drums, dumping drums, and the fire, his side of the story wasn’t exactly different than published reports, but they did include narrative that filled in a lot of blanks and told a slightly different story I thought people should be aware of.

To demonstrate this point, I’m going to use the passages in the Daily Times article and show you how Melvin Wade would respond.

the aftermath of the Wade Dump fire can be seen in federal legislation, hazardous material protocol

Melvin hates the term Wade Dump Site. It erases any memory of the hard work it took to bring the rubber recycling plant back to life and turn it into a productive manufacturing plant that made millions of dollars and employed hundreds of Chester people.

Melvin is proud to be associated with the site that was responsible for changing federal legislation and hazardous material protocol. He believes that if the tragedy didn’t occur at his plant, there is no clue how long it would take before the federal government would have made those changes. Melvin believes that if it wasn’t the tragedy in Chester in 1978, it would have been a tragedy somewhere else at a later time that would force the changes. How much damage would have occurred in the meantime can’t be calculated.

goal of a memorial at the site is to remind young firefighters to appreciate and practice the strides made in hazardous material training.

I doubt if Melvin knows a memorial exist in the firehouse. He’d be proud to know he played a part in improving hazardous material training.

Today firefighters can look for identifying markers from municipal License & Inspection departments to identity hazards before entering a building. Decontamination kits are used on site before leaving for hospital treatment to prevent exposure of all points in between.

“If you encounter something, there are resources now – county hazmat teams, state and federal agencies,” said Evers. “Things were a lot different 40 years ago.”

I doubt if Melvin knows a memorial exist in the firehouse. He’d be proud to know he played a part in improving hazardous material training.

The Wade Dump fire coincided with national media attention on the toxic landfill in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in mid-1978. Federal legislative action followed, leading to the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980.

The country couldn’t endure another tragic catastrophe without doing something fast. Love Canal, and 3-Mile Island had occurred before the Wade Site. But, it was the Wade Site that gave the environmental groups the ammunition to insist Washington do something fast. You always hear about Love Canal and 3-Mile Island, but history would have you to believe the Wade fire never happened. It’s relegated to local lure and Melvin thinks the world should know the impact his fire had on changing environmental legislation in America.

The federal law established the Superfund to pay for remediation of sites contaminated with hazardous substances and pollutants, including the Wade Dump.

What’s blatantly missing in this statement is that it took 9 years after the Wade fire before the Superfund was created. Until then, the site of the Wade fire just sat there in all its toxic mess spewing poisonous dust and air for all to consume.

The site received its name from Melvin Wade, a city businessman who had purchased the Easter Rubber building and began accepting payment from area companies to illegally store toxic waste.

Wow! Reading that statement makes it seem Melvin bought a rubber plant on Monday and received toxic drums on Tuesday. The beauty of ‘Toxic Man – The Melvin Wade Story’ is the detail it provides from Melvin as he describes what it was like to be the only black man in America owning an industrial factory. This was a national success story as evidenced by his inclusion in the Ebony Magazine Success Library Vol. 1. 1000 Successful Blacks, published in 1973.

Fast forwarding to the last days when the factory started to take on drums. According to Melvin, most of the drums he wasn’t paid to take. Initially, a guy with a pick up truck make a deal with Melvin to take drums ($1.50 a drum for those who believe he was getting rich off of this endeavor), but before it was over, trucks from places unknown started delivering drums as word got out that his factory had become a dump site.

The term ‘illegally store toxic waste’ is probably inaccurate. First, toxic waste was not the term used in the 70s. What Melvin was receiving was termed ‘liquid industrial waste.’ And, it wasn’t illegal for one industrial site to send liquid industrial waste to another industrial site. In fact, in this very article where they list the crimes Melvin was charged with, you will see nothing mentioning illegally stored toxic waste because that wasn’t a crime.

In August 1980, he was convicted of risking a catastrophe, failing to prevent a catastrophe and violation of the state Clean Streams Act by polluting the Delaware River in what was believed to be the first jury verdict in an environmental protection case in the county.

I’m so happy to see it mentioned that this was believed to be the first jury verdict in an environmental protection case in the county. Melvin’s account details how ridiculous the entire trial process was, from change of venue, to change of lawyers, to evidence being misrepresented in trial, to who was even going to be charging Melvin: the city, county, state, or feds?

All they could come up with was risking a catastrophe even after the feds had been to his place, had seen the conditions, took no action, and ended up blaming him for the catastrophe.

All they could come up with was violating the Clean Streams Act even though his employees dumped drums on the land. Sure, maybe those chemicals found their was to the river, but to think there was no laws on the books for land pollution is insane. Yes, the Philadelphia Union soccer team is playing just 100 feet away from where hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic liquids went into the ground for years. But, we’re all to believe the clean up was successful.

He was fined $30,000 and sentenced to one to two years in county prison, later declaring bankruptcy.

He may have been fined $30,000 by the local courts, but the feds hit him up for $1.9 million for the clean up. He only did 1 year in jail at Broad Meadows (now called George Hill Prison in Thornbury.)

In the aftermath of the 10-hour battle to extinguish the fire, investigators found more than 18,000 drums of toxic chemicals, tanker trucks leaking chemical waste onto the ground and ditches which had been dug to dump chemicals into the Delaware River.

Again, they didn’t dump drums into the river directly. They poured the liquids into a hole in the ground and some of it probably found its way to the river.

Let’s be clear! It doesn’t say they dumped 18,000 drums. It says they found 18,000 drums before the fire. However, they took no action and walked away after seeing 18,000 drums full of stuff. Ten months later there was a fire.

The EPA found 32 carcinogens – including 26,500 gallons of cyanide 10 percent solution, highly toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCDs) and benzene – and five heavy metals at the dump.

Let’s be clear again. They found all this stuff but walked away and did nothing. Ten months later there was a fire. Why didn’t they do anything? Could be because it was only Chester. Could be because they didn’t have any money to pay for doing anything. See what reasons you can come up with that makes sense.

A June 6, 1977 Times article reported that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources was aware that a large quantity of industrial wastes, some hazardous was being stored on the site, but the information had not reached the city and surrounding fire departments.

This fact is soooo hard to believe. A city site is teaming with state and federal officials on multiple visits checking out a hazardous waste site and either the city officials didn’t know they were there and/or the feds didn’t share their findings with the city. Who would believe that?

I bet if you made that claim to the EPA that they didn’t share their report with the City of Chester, they’d be ready to sue someone.

This was where the opportunity to prepare for fighting a toxic fire would have begun. Even if the city did get the report, (and if they didn’t, why wouldn’t they request it?), someone had to know toxic drums were on the Wade property.

Wade says that city and state inspectors frequently visited his site when drums were present to inspect elevators, scales, and his various equipment and work trucks. “How could they miss the drums?” For them to say they didn’t know toxic chemicals existed is ludicrous.

Sadly, despite where you point the blame, many people where harmed and many families have lost loved ones.

This won’t be the last you’ll hear of the so called Wade Dump Site. As time goes by, my hope is the story that’s told will contain more details to paint a complete picture of the tragedy and what led to it.

As one reader told me, this is a cautionary tale. I hope folks are taking caution.

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